I’ve spent many hours with Monty Hall over the past two months. It’s work related, so I’ve gotten to know him in a way I never did when I was a kid. Back then, I’d come home from school and watch him on “Let’s Make a Deal.”
Monty created the popular game show with Stefan Hatos 50 years ago. Contestants choose to take what’s behind one of three curtains, and they either end up with a valuable prize or a gag. The show was inspired by the Frank Stockton short story “The Lady, or the Tiger?,” in which a man’s choices result either in love or death. Monty added a third option, and replaced the woman with a washer-dryer combo and the tiger with a goat. I suppose that’s what captivated me about the show even as a child: In life, you never know, but you still have to choose.
Monty shot 4,000 episodes, and the show continues today with Wayne Brady as host. In all, Monty has made some 6,000 hours of television. This Sunday, June 16, Monty, now 91, will receive a much-deserved Lifetime Achievement Award at the 40th Daytime Emmy Awards ceremony.
During my first lunch with Monty, more than a year ago, I learned three things. First, the man cannot lift a spoonful of soup to his mouth without being interrupted by a fan or a friend. Second, he has spent much of his life raising money for charity — over $1 billion by his estimate. Finally, he is one of the best storytellers on the planet, and he has thousands of tales to tell.
Wait, one more thing. Monty is relentlessly funny and sharp. When I introduced him to our Web director, he asked, “What’s your name?”
“Jay,” was the reply.
A beat. “You should take more letters,” Monty said.
When Monty coughed a bit, his wife of 64 years, Marilyn, asked, “Are you alright?”
“No, I’m dying,” he said. The man entertains.
He was born Monte Halperin in Winnipeg, Canada, the son of Rose and Maurice. His Orthodox Jewish family was in the kosher meat business, and Monty grew up delivering orders on his bicycle. Once, in winter, he arrived at a customer’s home shaking from cold. The concerned customer called his father and asked what he should do with the boy. “Warm him up and put him back on the bike,” was the reply.
Monty tells it better.
The Halperins were not wealthy — my colleague David Suissa related in these pages Monty’s poignant story of how the town playboy paid for him to go to college. But Rose Halperin taught Monty that however much he had, he had to share with others.
“That wasn’t a choice,” Monty told me.
So when he wasn’t in front of the cameras, Monty was traveling the world, raising money. His big causes were the children’s charity Variety International, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Israel Tennis Centers — actually, if you asked, and he was available, he said yes.
I asked Monty if he ever took an honorarium or a speaker’s fee. He looked at me like I stepped on his dog. And he told me this story:
Once a Jewish charity in St. Louis asked him to come emcee their event. He said yes, of course, and all he asked for was one airplane ticket and a hotel room for him and Marilyn. He would cover Marilyn’s airfare. The organizers balked— they didn’t want to pay for a double room. Monty called his mother and launched into a tirade about how could these people be so stingy over a stupid hotel room when he was giving up his weekend to host their event. He expected his mother, who was national chairman of Hadassah, to pick up the phone and set the organizers straight.
“Monty,” Rose Halperin said. “Just pay for the room, you got the money.”
Monty’s home in Beverly Hills is adorned with photos of his three children, the grandkids, all the honors he’s received, photos of him and Marilyn with presidents and prime ministers. There’s also the Emmy Marilyn received as an executive producer of the 1985 CBS TV movie, “Do You Remember Love?”
“I’m going to put mine next to hers,” Monty told me, “so they’ll make lots of little Emmys.”
Among Monty’s other claims to fame, “Let’s Make a Deal” gave rise to a classic mathematical puzzle. After a contestant has chosen one door, and the host offers him the chance to change his mind and choose another, should he? Would changing his mind put the odds of a better prize in his favor? They call this, “The Monty Hall Problem” — even though Monty said, in reality, the contestant’s choice matters less than the way the host manipulates the player.
“On the show,” Monty said. “It’s different.”
At the end of one long visit, with many more stories, Monty leaned back in his chair.
“I’ve had a life,” he said, his strong and familiar voice a mix of satisfaction, marvel and gratitude.
Man plans and God laughs, goes the old the Yiddish expression. But when you choose well, that great Game Show Host in the Sky laughs with you.